Visiting teaching is not a matter of rushing to a home, leaving a message and scooting off to the next appointment. It is a matter of building relationships, according to Elaine L. Jack, Relief Society general president.
"In visiting teaching we reach out to each other. Hands often speak as voices can't. A warm embrace conveys volumes. A laugh together unites us. A moment of sharing refreshes our souls. We cannot always lift the burden of one who is troubled, but we can lift her so she can bear it well," she explained to Relief Society presidents at the Relief Society open house, held in conjunction with the April 1991 general conference.However, for many women, visiting teaching has become a burden rather than a blessing, Pres. Jack noted. "I fear that many of us have looked at the letter rather than the spirit of the law in how we organize and accomplish visiting."
To acquire the spirit of visiting teaching, women need to understand its purpose. The Relief Society Handbook clearly states that purpose: "The work of Relief Society in assisting the bishop to seek out and care for the poor and needy is largely carried out through visiting teaching. This selfless service within a loving sisterhood can bring both temporal and spiritual blessings that can contribute to perfecting the Saints."
This purpose has not changed and it never will because it is based on truth, Pres. Jack commented in her open house address. What has changed is the flexibility given to use a telephone call, a letter, along with a personal visit as ways to contact sisters.
"What the handbook says is that we should reach out in selfless service within a loving sisterhood, and that there is more than one way to do that. There are situations where a woman needs a regular visit, [andT there are circumstances where other types of contacts meet the need. . . . The point is that the need must be met. . . . " she added.
Sister Camilla Kimball, wife of President Spencer W. Kimball and an exemplary visiting teacher for more than 50 years, understood the spirit of this great work, according to Pres. Jack.
"Sister Kimball said: `We are responsible for one another. I help you and you help me. Visiting teaching offers some of the strongest evidence that we are truly willing to serve one another.
" `Our interdependence with others is the most encompassing fact of human reality. We need each other. Blessed are those who can give without remembering and receive without forgetting. All people need to appreciate what life has already given us and realize that we can still give what Christ has directed us to give - service and love.' "
The following experiences are just a few examples of how individual lives are being touched by those who have caught the spirit of visiting teaching:
When Sandra Mathusek was called as Relief Society president in the Emerson Ward, Caldwell New Jersey Stake, she was given a list of 70 sisters who had asked to not be contacted by anyone from the Church. However, Sister Mathusek divided the list of names among several visiting teachers and asked that they write these sisters every month. Carolina Perkins took the challenge and regularly sent letters to the sisters on her list, keeping them informed about ward activities and Relief Society news.
One of the sisters on her list was Mary Lou Parkinson, from Hackensack, N.J., a convert to the Church who had been less-active for 15 years. "Other visiting teachers had tried to contact me, but they only had my parent's phone number, so the calls were easily deflected," Sister Parkinson recalled in a telephone interview with the Church News. "But a letter was different. I thought it was fantastic that someone would care enough to take the time, even if it was only 10 minutes, to write me a letter."
While Sister Perkins was writing to her, Sister Parkinson suffered some serious health problems. "During this time," said Sister Parkinson, "I did a lot of soul searching. I knew I needed to go back to Church, but I wasn't sure which church to go back to. If it weren't for those letters from my visiting teacher, I wouldn't have gone back to the Emerson Ward."
Sister Parkinson now serves as a stake missionary, is active in the ward's Single Adult program, and is Relief Society pianist.
Nancy Paetzell had been a member of the Church for less than a year when she learned how valuable visiting teaching can be.
While a member of the Sunbury Ward, Scranton Pennsylvania Stake, she and her companion were assigned to visit a less-active sister whose husband was not friendly toward the Church. "She kept the television on while we were there and her eyes would keep wandering to it while we were talking," Sister Paetzell recalled. "We were so frustrated because it seemed our message wasn't as important as what the television had to say."
This frustration was compounded by the fact that they couldn't make appointments with this sister because she didn't have a phone. "We never knew when we'd catch her home, and if we did and her husband was home, we couldn't stay," she commented.
One morning, when a visit with another sister fell through, Sister Paetzell and her companion decided to stop and visit this sister. "When she came to the door she was very upset. The night before there had been a fire in her daughter's trailer and her daughter's husband was killed. Her daughter and grandchild were staying with her.
"My companion and I decided something practical was needed, so we went to the store and bought groceries and diapers. We took them to the house and the two women were very appreciative." Sister Paetzell explained.
"This one act of service also opened the door for the home teachers to start coming. It's when I really got my testimony of visiting teaching," she added.
Sister Paetzell has since moved to the Towanda Ward, Owego New York Stake, but before she left, this previously less-active sister had done almost a complete turnaround. She started attending Church and always received her visiting teachers warmly, making certain the television was turned off.
So often stories of visiting teaching place an emphasis on visiting teachers who make a difference in the lives of the sisters they teach, but in Helen Bassett's case, it was the other way around.
Sister Bassett and her companion were assigned to visit a sister who lived in an undesirable section of the city. She was told she didn't need to visit that sister at home, that she and her companion could catch her at Church on Sunday.
"It didn't set well with us," Sister Bassett remarked, "So my companion and I went to her home anyway and this sister was a real sweetheart. She was always excited to see us. She had always read the lesson and wanted to discuss it. How many sisters actually read the lesson before their visiting teacher comes?"
The enthusiasm of this sister encouraged Sister Bassett and her companion to visit regularly and they were further encouraged when months later they found out this sister owned a restaurant and would hire a substitute on the days she had an appointment with the visiting teachers.
"That really humbled me, because she arranged her schedule to accommodate us," Sister Bassett said. "This is one visiting teaching experience that will always stick out in my mind because she let us know how important our visits were to her."